Transaction of Today – May 21, 1919…The New York Giants trade Jim Thorpe to the Boston Braves for a player to be named later. The Boston Braves sent Pat Ragan (May 30, 1919) to the New York Giants to complete the trade.
He was the greatest American athlete of his time. A Gold Medalist, professional football player, and even a basketball player, Jim Thorpe also played a half-dozen years of professional baseball. His natural gifts on the diamond were limited by one particular enemy that has killed the careers of a number of many lesser men – the curveball.
His grandfather was Black Hawk, a band leader and warrior of the Sauk American Indian tribe who fought against America during the War of 1812 and raided American settlements in their former land of Illinois. Jim Thorpe’s father, Hiram, had at least 20 children from five different Native women. That’s what I call a big family. Thorpe’s Indian name was Wa-tho-huck, which loosely translates to “Path Lit by Lightening.” He’d live up to that moniker.
In 1904, Thorpe was sent to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennslyvania to get some disciplinary problems in check. The school had some good intentions. It taught Natives work skills that would make them more appealing to hire. However, while Carlisle was referred to as a “college,” its education level lagged significantly behind. Carlisle did have a sports program, however, and in 1907, Glenn “Pop” Warner pushed Thorpe to join the football squad. Over the next few years, though he would leave Carlisle at times to make money playing baseball and working on a farm, Thorpe would return to do special things on the gridiron. In 1911 and 1912, he was an All-American.
Also in 1912, Thorpe was selected to represent America in two new events at the Olympics – the pentathlon and decathlon. He won both and was approached by King Gustav V of Sweden, who told Thorpe, “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.” Thorpe simply responded, “Thanks, King.” This may not be a completely true story, but it should be.
After the Olympics, Thorpe was a national hero and had a ticker-tape parade down Broadway. However, his gold medals wouldn’t be without controversy. The next year, it was reported that Thorpe had played professional minor league ball in the Eastern Carolina League. Truth be told, many college players of the time did the same thing as it was a good way to make money in the summer. But they did something Thorpe didn’t do – play under an alias to protect their amateur status.
The Amateur Athletic Union retroactively took away Thorpe’s amateur rank – in no small part due to its secretary, James E. Sullivan. To say Sullivan didn’t like Indigenous People is an understatement. Back in 1904, Sullivan staged sporting events of white athletes against Natives in what he called the “Special Olympics.” It was a complete farce, though, as Sullivan’s focus was to prove that Natives were not on the same level as their superior white athletes. To prove this, Sullivan used trained white athletes against Natives who neither understood the rules or even the English descriptions of the sport. The event was also called the “Savages” Olympics.
Not only was his amateur status taken away, but Thorpe also was stripped of his gold medals – though the second-place finishers refused to take them. The medals would later be stolen from museums and have never been recovered. In 1981, the International Olympic Committee reinstated Thorpe and gave two of his children commemorative medals.
Losing his amateur status did lead to Thorpe becoming one of the biggest free agents in sports history. In 1915, he joined the Canton Bulldogs of the APFA – a precursor to the NFL. He played professional football until 1928. He also joined a traveling basketball team of “World Famous Indians,” who barnstormed several states in 1927-28.
But in baseball, he perhaps made his most money. In an era of the reserve clause that limited the potential earnings a ballplayer could make, Thorpe signed for $6,000 a year (about $150K in today’s dollars). It was the most money to be given to a rookie ballplayer at the time. However, signing Thorpe was done as much for the publicity as anything. John McGraw admitted that he never saw Thorpe play and didn’t even know if he was right-or-left-handed.
Thorpe would play sporadically over the next three years, hitting just .195. He was very raw and it showed as he struck out 29 times in 118 AB. While striking out a quarter of your at-bats in today’s game is pretty normal, it just didn’t happen in the 1910’s. He had more luck in the minors, hitting .303 with 22 steals in the Eastern League in 1915. But he couldn’t find success in the bigs.
In 1917, with his former star pitcher Christy Mathewson managing the Reds, McGraw loaned Thorpe to Cincinnati. He’d play more regularly with the Reds, hitting .247/.267/.367 with four homers and 11 steals. He had perhaps the biggest highlight of his baseball career with the Reds. On May 2, Thorpe stepped in with a runner on third base and two outs. The Cubs’ Hippo Vaughn had just given up the first hit of the ballgame after nine no-hit innings from both Vaughn and Reds starter Fred Toney. Thorpe hit a slow grounder toward third that Vaughn fielded and tried to throw to home to get the runner. The catcher, Art Wilson, wasn’t ready and never caught the ball. Toney finished the game with another hitless frame in the bottom of the tenth as the Reds won 1-0.
Thorpe returned to the Giants in 1918 but continued to struggle and McGraw could find only a few at-bats for his high-priced outfielder. After starting the 1919 season with New York and complaining about his playing time, the Giants traded Thorpe to the Boston Braves on this day nearly a century ago. The Giants later got Pat Ragan out of the deal. The righty was a 35-year-old pitcher who had been pretty good for most of the decade, but by 1919, looked like a shell of his former self. He’d pitch just 22.2 innings with the Giants before they waived him and he joined the 1919 White Sox for the final few days of the season. He did not play in the 1919 World Series.
In Boston, Thorpe played pretty regularly over the rest of the season. He also had his best success, hitting .327/.360/.429 as a Brave with seven doubles, three triples, and a homer. He also swiped seven bases. Sure, the .400 BABIP helped. For whatever reason, however, Thorpe wasn’t brought back. He’d play a couple more years of minor league ball, but the
experience in Boston was his final one in the major leagues.
Thorpe summed up his career in baseball with one sentence – “I can’t seem to hit curves.” To be fair, they ain’t that easy to hit.
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